“Life is like riding a bicycle – in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.” – Albert Einstein
It’s the hottest trend on two wheels: the fixie. With summer finally here, these crazy-coloured custom creations have taken the city by storm. Sleek and speedy, with a minimalistic aesthetic, the simple design has its roots in New York City as the bike of choice for messengers who figured they were least likely to get stolen. In the last year, these single-gear bicycles have reached cult status, with a virtually limitless variety of customization options and fixie-focused bike shops and websites. In order to better understand fixie culture, I saddled up with Montreal fixie fan Geoff Garbarino and braced myself for what was sure to be an unforgettable ride.
That Fixie Feeling
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” – Ernest Hemingway
What is it about a single-gear, heavy-frame bicycle that appeals to riders the world over? A common explanation of the fixie fixation is the feeling of being connected to the bike. Aside from the personality each rider infuses into their creation, the solitary gear forces you to experience the terrain. “Purist” fixie riders opt for pedals connected to their rear wheel. When the wheel moves, your feet move – no casual coasting. The constant peddling creates a consistent stroke, forming the ultimate connection between the rider and the machine. If that sounds a bit on the intense side, there’s the option of a freewheel, a single-gear bike that still allows coasting.
For my first fixie experience, I’ve hitched a ride on Geoff’s super-sleek “murdered-out” free-wheeler, and I have to admit, it’s smooth sailing. “I’ve taken a few people on this bike and they’re all amazed by how smooth it is,” he says. But what about the hills? “The thing with fixies is you have to plan out your ride,” explains Geoff. “It’s a bit of a challenge that makes it fun.” Geoff has taken me on one of his “quick” 1.5-hour routes, and it’s not long before I understand why it’s one of his favourites. We cross over to Ile Saint-Helene, pedal along the glossy racetrack, cycle around the Biosphere, and soar across the Jacques Cartier bridge. The cityscape is breathtaking, and as I cruise along in my casual clothes and Converse, I could not be happier to be along for the ride.
The Bare Essentials
“Nothing compares to the simple pleasures of riding a bike.” – John F. Kennedy
There is something to be said for simplicity. Functionally, the fixie is the cave drawing of bicycles. The most basic essentials are there, but nothing more. Some are equipped with a front brake, (often referred to as the “oh shit handle”), but rarely used. “The single gear means that riders of all levels can bike together,” Geoff explains. “One rider can’t go that much faster than the next. There is a bit of strength involved, but other than that you’re all going at the same pace.”
I’m used to my clip-in road bike, and any road bike rider will tell you that gear shifting is somewhat of an obsession. The perfect gear will let you fly as fast as possible with the least amount of effort. Riding Geoff’s single-gear fixie, it takes me a while to adjust. I keep reaching for the non-existent gear-shifter and scramble with pedals detached from my shoes. But as I finally get into the flow of things, a care-free feeling washes over me with the breeze. I start to appreciate the appeal of the fixie’s simplicity; it’s not about fast or slow, clipping in or out, or monitoring your kilometres. It’s back to basics. Just you, the road, and the pleasure of biking.
Canvass on Wheels
“Think of bicycles as rideable art that can just about save the world.” – Grant Peterson
Whether you opt for a “purist” fixed-gear, a single-speed coaster, or a track bike, one thing’s for sure: a fixie is art on wheels. Sure, a fixie is functional in the point-A-to-point-B sense, but these bikes are more about presence than performance. Every piece is an opportunity to get creative and customize, from flat bars to motorcycle grips, disc wheels to deep-dish colour-matched rims and hubs. Want to really step it up? Try vintage parts, leather saddles, aerospoke wheels and, of course, a custom paint job. Whether you collect second-hand parts for a thrifty creation, or hunt out unique pieces for a decked-out masterpiece, your fixie becomes an extension of your personality.
“I got into fixes through riding Bixi bikes around Montreal,” Geoff recalls. “I wanted a cooler-looking upgrade.” His first fixie was a fixer-upper from Recycle Cycle, a second-hand bike shop. “The frame had been repainted a million times, the wheels were completely rusted, and the seat had seen better days.” But it did the trick; Geoff was soon fully immersed in all things fixie, spending hours on customization websites that were just starting to crop up. Not long after, a second fixie joined the Garbarino fleet: a birthday present from Geoff’s (amazingly awesome) girlfriend, Alfee, who had taken note of his quickly developing obsession. The matte-black creation, complete with deep dish rims and an aerospoke wheel, still garners ample attention from passersby. Their only question? Where did you get that sick bike?
Geoff’s Fave Fixie Hotspots:
Top photo courtesy State Bicycle